Uganda's baseball dream
06:35 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

An American filmmaker has made a documentary about Little League Baseball in Uganda

Around 15,000 children are signed up to the league in the country

An African team became the first ever to qualify for the Little League World Series

The team didn't make it to America because of visa issues

CNN  — 

Uganda isn’t known for being a big player on the baseball field, but one man is hoping for a home run with his documentary about the sport.

An American filmmaker has made what he describes as ‘a love letter to the game sent from a place you’d least expect.’

Jay Shapiro hopes that his snap shot of youth baseball in the East African country will raise the profile of the sport in a part of the world where he says it means so much to its players.

“I’m constantly dissatisfied with the way people react to Africa and the third world in general, and that sort of became my goal to shift the way people think about Africa,” Shapiro explained.

“What better way to shift the way Americans think about Africa better than baseball, the game they love and I love, too,” he continued.

His documentary, called Opposite Field, focuses on Uganda’s Little League Baseball network. A sport that may still be in its fledgling stages but is growing bigger by the day.

Shapiro explains that he ended up in Uganda when he was doing commercial work for Major League Baseball. It was there that he met a man from Staten Island, called Richard Stanley, who was passionate about bringing the sport to Uganda.

“He showed me this stack of Polaroid pictures basically of a swamp in the middle of nowhere and he told me he’s going to build this beautiful baseball facility,” he said.

It was a project that Richard Stanley began working on in 2002. Shapiro says that thanks to his hard work there are now two baseball fields in Uganda.

But Shapiro says what really shocked him when he went to visit the fields was the kids.

“I was expecting to see some really basic baseball, kids just picking up a ball for the first time and learning how to throw or swing the bat, but that’s not what I saw,” he said. “They were really good, they knew how to play.”

Around 15,000 children are signed up to the league now but with about 700 gloves between them more funding is desperately needed.

However, Shapiro says that it’s the lack of money that produces such impressive players in Uganda.

“These kids just play, they don’t even have a field to play on or a ball, they’ll make a ball out of plastic bag that they singe and just throw it,” Shapiro said.

“That’s why they are so good; they play for the right reasons. If they play because they love it, they’ll win,” he said.

The team Shapiro filmed did win.

He followed a group of 11 and 12-year-old boys from the ghettos of Kampala, who became the first African team to ever qualify for the Little League World Series.

Uganda youth baseball team denied U.S. visas over age discrepancies

The team was due to play in the tournament in Williamsport, Pennsylvania but issues with their visas meant they couldn’t enter America.

“As everyone knows, documentation is a problem, not just for Uganda and not just baseball, but 1 billion kids in the world don’t have documentation for who they are or how old they are,” Shapiro said.

Birth certificates are not routinely given out in Uganda and many people do not know the day they were born.

In order to travel a certificate and passport is needed, but it’s a costly process. A statement on the Little League’s website says that if the problems can not be ironed out, Little League Baseball and Softball in Africa will only be for the wealthy.

Shapiro hopes his film will address some of the challenges facing the sport in Uganda so it can continue to grow.

“It is baseball at its purest form, its baseball for the love of it, its baseball…where there shouldn’t be baseball so you have to love it to make it grow.”

The filmmaker says that it’s this love of baseball that joins kids together against a backdrop of personal tragedy.

One boy that features in the documentary is Ivan, who lives in an equipment shed with up to 8 people.

Shapiro says that despite the daily hardships he faces, he is an incredible baseball player.

“He does a lot of things you can’t teach, he has a natural hand-eye coordination, you just see, his story could end up somewhere special,” he said.

“He strikes you as this shy, timid, quiet boy but when he gets on the field, he’s the leader, he’s the loudest one out there, holding huddles for the team, but he’s the man, and I love watching that.”

Emily Wither contributed to this report